Like so many cultural institutions, children’s museums were devastated by the pandemic. To help members navigate COVID-19 challenges, the Association of Children’s Museums has been collecting data and sharing trends reports to help them guide decisions at their own institutions.
The spring and summer months—when children are on school breaks and parents are looking for activities—are when children’s museums earn most of their revenue. With the pandemic closures starting in March, museums had severe economic losses, said Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).
“We are seeing a total workforce retraction of about 75 percent,” Migus said. “In our industry, 60 percent of our museum annual revenue is earned revenue—admission, camp fees, membership. Only 40 percent is unearned through donations, grants, or sponsorship.”
To help members face some of these challenges, ACM has been issuing ACM Trends Reports that detail how children’s museums are coping. While the periodic reports have been around since 2017, their information has been incredibly useful to members since the pandemic began.
“Once we got to the six-week mark, our industry started to understand this was likely going to be a longer-term situation—needing to stay closed,” Migus said. “It has shaped the strategies that children’s museums have developed to engage their audiences.”
According to the reports, museums have been relying on engaging member families and patrons using online resources. “With a membership, a family pays a subscription fee that gives them access to a lot of resources, and with doors closed, that went away,” Migus said. “Museums wanted to be able to provide those services. A lot of museums are taking to their Facebook pages, and doing Facebook live storytelling.”
For older kids, museums moved camps and educational programming online. In addition to engaging patrons, museums also sought to fulfill their role as community helpers, with many strengthening local partnerships. One children’s museum took unused educational programming supplies and made learning activity kits, which were distributed to kids who might not have internet access at a local food bank partner. Another museum used its closed building to store donated supplies that a local shelter didn’t have enough room to keep.
“There are these two strands developing, the first around using online to keep customers engaged,” Migus said. “At the same time, there is this other strand of fulfilling the social service mission to serve all children and families, regardless of their ability to pay.”
Sharing the trends also allows members to see what is working. For example, museums are selling new memberships, despite many remaining closed. “It is one of their best ways to bring in any kind of cash revenue, especially those who still have their doors closed,” Migus said. “They are seeing some great success because people in their communities really understand the need.”
Whatever decisions museums make locally, the trends reports have been helpful in getting buy-in from their boards. “Very often, a children’s museum is the only children’s museum in the community,” Migus said. “There isn’t an acceptable benchmark for volunteer board members to understand what is the norm. They may say, ‘The botanical gardens didn’t close, and art museums have been able to open.’ Our data is really important to be able to use for their board members to understand the context of the museum with the rest of the field.”